Last month, Newt Gingrich tried to explain that his presidential campaign must be understood as something different, in fact as the kind of campaign that the American people hadn’t seen in a long, long time.
“It’s going to take a while for the news media to realize that you’re covering something that happens once or twice in a century,” he warned us in a campaign swing in Iowa.
As a student of politics, I was intrigued by that claim. I started thinking back over the past century or so, trying to identify the historical antecedents of the Gingrich 2012 campaign. And I think I’ve finally found it:
Pat Paulsen for president, 1968.
The timing is certainly right. In 1968, Gingrich would have been an ambitious young man of 25, scanning the political landscape for a role model. The evidence is overwhelming that he found that model in Paulsen.
Paulsen, for example, used to describe himself on the campaign trail as “just a common, ordinary, simple savior of America’s destiny.” Can anyone seriously deny the echoes of the man in his protege Gingrich?
Some may try to take issue with my claim, perhaps by pointing out that the Paulsen ‘68 campaign was just an extended joke, and that Paulsen himself was merely a comedian pretending to run for president as a way to get attention.
And the difference would be?
Just yesterday, in an appearance on the Neal Boortz talk show, Gingrich tried to explain how his campaign had fallen on such hard times so quickly. The media, you see, understood that Gingrich could defeat President Obama, which makes him their “worst nightmare.” All of his campaign troubles — his decision to vacation in the Greek Isles, the departure of his entire campaign staff, the drying up of donations — were thus the result of a media effort to undermine him.
“I didn’t think they would realize this early just how dangerous this campaign is and go after it so hard,” Gingrich told Boortz.
That’s just damn funny. The timing, the absurdist exaggeration. Gingrich has mastered Paulsen’s trick of saying the most ridiculous things with an absolute deadpan expression and seeming sincerity. It’s all there, the echoes of Paulsen more than 40 years ago.
Gingrich 2012, in other words, is best understood not as a traditional campaign, but as performance art masquerading as politics. He is an actor, a satirist who has donned the familiar tropes and trappings of a campaign as a way to expose the self-absorbed excesses of the political world and to make the rest of us laugh.
Viewed that way, it’s genius. Pure genius. Viewed any other way, it’s just downright sad.
– Jay Bookman